The Rev. Peter Faass
Five years ago, Anthony and I were shopping for a wedding cake. Yes, that’s already five years ago! Wedding cakes, like other wedding components, express the personal tastes of the couple. For foodies like us, it was paramount to select a great baker for a fabulous, delicious confection. I only wish that the Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle) had been around to advise us. Her lemon and elderflower wedding cake sounded scrumptious!
A friend of ours recommended a wonderful baker who makes unusually beautiful and delicious cakes. So, we visited this bakery to discuss their products and prices (I am still shocked by what a decent wedding cake costs per slice!).
When we entered this bakery, we explained to the woman who greeted us why we were there. While I wouldn’t say her response was happy and congratulatory about our pending nuptials, she was reasonably pleasant. Inviting us to sit at a small table, she produced two loose-leaf notebooks filled with plastic-coated photos of various wedding cake design options, cake flavors, fillings, icings and price ranges. She explained that the bakery owner took the wedding cake orders and was in the back of the store, but that he would meet us in a few minutes. She then left to tell the owner we were there.
For ten minutes, we leafed through the binders. I thought, “well people get busy,” so we continued looking. Another ten minutes went by. I asked the person at the bakery counter to remind the owner we were there. She went to the back room and did not come back. The prolonged absence of the owner and other staff at this bakery was deafening and sent a clear message. A few minutes later, I said to Anthony, “They don’t want to sell us a wedding cake because we are two men. Let’s go.” We left.
This past week, the Supreme Court ruled on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. This case involved a Colorado gay couple who wanted to order their wedding cake from a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop. Bakery owner Jack Phillips, who describes himself as a devout Christian, refused to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, because in his interpretation of the Christian faith, homosexuality is a sin. By a rather astonishing lopsided vote of 7-2 (thank you so much Justices Kagan and Breyer, and Kennedy), the Supreme Court upheld Phillips’ right to deny Craig and Mullins their wedding cake.
Anthony and I felt their pain and disappointment.
I am not going to comment on the legal aspect of this decision. I am told that it’s not as bad for the rights of same-sex couples as it initially appears. That’s cold comfort, since Ohio LGBT folks really have no rights to speak of. We have an abundance of lawyers in this congregation who can offer more accurate insight into the Supreme Court ruling.
I want to reflect on Phillips’ Christianity, especially as the majority Supreme Court opinion quoted him as saying that his “main goal in life is to be obedient to, 'Jesus Christ and Christ’s teachings in all aspects of his life.'”
So, his refusal to bake this wedding cake begs the question: Is he? Is his refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex couple being "obedient to Jesus Christ and all Christ’s teachings?" I would posit that the answer to that question is a resounding no!
Despite homosexuality being well-known in the ancient world, Jesus never mentioned it. While Jesus talks about yeast and bread, he never mentions wedding cakes (although he – or at least his nudgy mother – had plenty to say about wedding wine). In the Gospels, Jesus clearly sends a message that includes those who others feel are not worthy of inclusion. Today’s Gospel account is a case in point.
Jesus’ life-changing teachings and healings are causing larger crowds to gather around him. He and his disciples are so hemmed in that “Jesus and his disciples could not even eat.”
These growing crowds are no surprise. When someone tells you that you have self-worth regardless of who you are, after being told your whole life you are worthless, this is going to attract a huge following.
The authorities were alarmed by the increasing crowds. What is all this stuff about respect and dignity Jesus is teaching, anyway? Their power structure depends on having worthy and unworthy classes of people. Of course the authorities are the worthy classes, so they feel threatened. In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ feeding and healing on the Sabbath so alarmed the authorities that they, “immediately conspired . . . against him, how to destroy him.” They are not happy campers.
Jesus’s family gets wind of how disruptive Jesus has become and they fear for his well-being, so they try to take him away.
“They went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”
Others accuse Jesus of being Satanic. “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” This is a classic response by those who are threatened by people proclaiming a hopeful alternate message to their own: “They’re crazy!” “They are satanic!”
How often have conservative Christians said that about Episcopalians?
Satan’s got a hold on them
It’s false Christianity!
A member of a door-to-door denominational cult once told me that as an Episcopal priest I was a spawn of Satan. Regretfully both my parents are deceased, so I have no way of confirming this.
Jesus says something which changed everything. His family, more intent than ever to whisk him away come to find him again.
“The crowd tells him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Not only does Jesus resist the intervention of his mother, he renounces their claim on him. He doesn’t do this because he disdains his family, but because they want to keep him from proclaiming the good news of God’s abundant love and inclusion. He can’t abide by this. So, they remain “outside” while Jesus embraces those encircled “around him” in the crowded house.
Jesus redraws the lines of family and belonging, saying that those who do God’s will are siblings and mother to him. Thus, Jesus proclaims a new family. In a culture where identity was bound to kinship and tribal structures, Jesus’ pronouncement of a new family beyond blood or tribal kinship surely elicited gasps of shock. But it also brought gasps of great joy to many, especially people who find themselves estranged from their own families or tribes because of who they were. This still happens to LGBTQ folks in our own time.
Jesus’ new family is defined by “those who do God’s will.” Doing God’s will is about doing the rule of love: loving God, loving neighbor and loving one another as Jesus loves us. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry proclaimed, “Love is the way!”
There is no other way to follow Jesus. Love is the only way to obey Jesus Christ and his teachings in all aspects of life.
In Jesus’ family when you follow God’s will by loving all of God’s children, not only do you get your cake baked for you, you get to eat it, too. That, my friends, is one hell of a wedding feast!
The Rev. Peter Faass
Well, it certainly has been a great couple of months to be an Episcopalian! Whew, it’s been quite a ride! Who ever imagined that interest in the Episcopal Church, especially in the midst of the downward decline of institutional religion, would be happening in the spring of 2018? On Saturday, May 19 (the day of Meghan and Harry’s wedding), “Episcopalian” was the most searched word on GOOGLE. That translates into millions of searches, and that’s amazing! Based on these past few weeks, I’m sensing we may be seeing the beginning of a new Great Awakening in the 21st Century.
We can mark the beginning of this Great Awakening with the elegant and dignified funeral of former first lady Barbara Bush on April 21st. Her funeral was held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, which is the largest parish in our denomination (over 7,000 members!). Christ Church hovers around 350. Anthony and I checked St. Martin’s website. They have 14 clergy and over 120 staff. At Christ Church, we have one clergy and four staff. St. Martin’s is a big parish!
In addition to the beautiful liturgy, viewers of Bush’s televised funeral were touched by the sight of many Republican and Democrat leaders, past and present, who gathered to honor her. Political differences were placed aside as they treated each other with respect, dignity and even affection. A love for our nation and a desire to honor a woman who served it well bound us together.
Recently, we haven’t been accustomed to that kind of dignity and respect from the political class, much less the understanding that the bonds of being American trumps being partisan. This tableau of political comity offered us hope despite the muck and mire we experience these days, reminding us of the great values of faith and nation that go beyond partisan politics and personal gain. Those values certainly were the plumb line of how Barbara Bush led her life. All this occurred in an Episcopal Church. What better a setting for an opportunity to display what “justice and peace [for] all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being” (BCP p. 305) looks like.
On May 19, the royal wedding fulfilled our American fantasies about royal life, and our secret desires to become a prince or princess. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, preached an earth-shattering sermon about God’s love as the balm to heal our broken world.
He stated, “We must discover love - the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”
Delivered in Curry’s powerful African-American, Baptist oratorical style, his sermon was a shot heard round the world to 2 billion viewers. Those who had believed that religion was moribund (if not dead) witnessed the revival happening in this Episcopal Church under Bishop Curry – and what he calls the Jesus Movement. Even professed atheists were having doubts about denying a God that was clearly palpable in this charismatic and holy man.
Curry is our LeBron James. I’ll let the delicious irony of that word play stand on its own in the midst of the NBA Finals between the Cavs and the Warriors.
In the midst of the depressing din and chaos we currently live in, when the news always seems to leave a dark pall hanging over our heads, these two services offered a brief Sabbath rest to weary and demoralized people everywhere.
When I say Sabbath rest, I mean more than a break from the demands of life. Sabbath is more than sleeping late and getting “some R and R.” Sabbath is a period of time which is life-oriented and life-giving. The Sabbath is meant to promote life and give hope, extolling God as a liberator from the world’s evil ways. Ultimately, Sabbath is about God’s love.
Life-giving Sabbath restores hope in the midst of hopelessness. What could be more loving than that? We poignantly experienced this in Bishop Curry’s sermon about love, which was so life-giving that it compelled millions to inquire, “Who is this Episcopal guy and what’s his Church about?”
Sabbath as life-giving is the point of what happens in the today’s Gospel of Mark, where two incidents occur on the Sabbath.
In the first incident, the religious authorities condemn Jesus for allowing the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath to alleviate their hunger. The authorities believed this violated the prohibition to work on the Sabbath. Sabbath as interpreted by the institutional religion had often become life-denying; a dark pall that hung over people’s lives like a claustrophobic shroud. It had become morally atrophied.
Jesus (clearly a better scholar of scripture than the authorities) recalls how the iconic David and his companions ate the bread of the presence when they were famished, even though that holy bread was reserved for the priests. By alleviating David’s hunger, the holy bread became life-giving and sustained the life of Israel’s great future king. Sabbath was literally life-giving, allowing David and his followers to have hope.
In the second Sabbath story, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand. Despite the prohibition to “work” on the Sabbath, Jesus heals him (Jesus does not mock him, he heals him). The religious authorities are aghast that he has worked on the Sabbath.
Jesus contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values and meeting greater needs, especially when those needs promote a person’s well-being and restores their lives. Both these stories are life-giving moments, leading us to hope when things seemed hopeless. Jesus conveys that Sabbath is about life, hope and love.
Jesus (and recently Bishop Curry and the Episcopal Church) remind us that God’s life-giving Sabbath love will keep us from deteriorating into a moral vacuum.
As a commentary I read stated, “If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t get to overlook those whose lives are being threatened on a daily basis. If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t get to pass over how the lives of others are being stripped of their worth and dignity. If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t have qualifiers or quantifiers for who deserves abundant life.”
This is what it means to be a part of the Jesus Movement. Proclaim your love of God, your neighbor, and one another as Jesus loved us. They are the message of the new great awakening which has begun in our beloved Church. It is life-giving and it will redeem us from the moral atrophy that threatens us. As Bishop Curry preached, “Love is the way.” It certainly is an exciting time to be an Episcopalian.
 Karoline M. Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
John 17: 6-19
The Rev. Peter Faass
Seminarians often hear the phrase “to be in the world, but not of the world.” The saying’s roots are found in today’s passage from the Gospel of John and are part of what scholars call Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This prayer occurs on the last night of Jesus’ life, in the upper room where he gives the disciples the humbling act of foot-washing, the Lord’s Supper, and the New Commandment, “To love another as I have loved you.” Knowing that the end is near, Jesus crams a lot of final gifts and advice to his friends.
The disciples listen to Jesus’ extemporaneous prayer. These words are prayed out loud and without written text. Jesus is clearly not an Episcopalian!
We can liken his prayer to a dying parent or spouse who gathers their loved ones close by for a final conversation. This final conversation imparts wisdom, strength and confidence to those who will soon be left behind. The dying person wants to offer strength and hope to those who will need it after their passing.
Jesus prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
Jesus asks God the Father to guide and sustain the disciples once he is gone so they will continue to be in the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ message. He also asks God that they not be of the world, comprised of the immoral practices, beliefs and behaviors that defy God’s word, referred to as “the evil one.”
Professors at seminary impart these same words of advice (to be in but not of the world) to future clergy leaders to fashion their lives in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel, not those of the evil one. This is not an easy task for the clergy or laity.
Christians have often responded, with some confusion, to be in but not of the world. Some have totally removed themselves from the greater culture to avoid being influenced or tainted by it. We have seen this in cloistered religious orders where the nuns or monks either partially or fully remove themselves from any outside contact with the world.
A more recent manifestation has been the conservative Christian homeschooling movement. Parents, afraid of the influences of the greater culture, try to protect their children by controlling what they learn and what they see on television or the internet.
Many mega-churches do the same thing by offering the services of a small city within their church complexes. These churches contain restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, athletic facilities, day-care, ATMs, coffee bars, and shops of all kinds. The goal is to offer an all-purpose alternative (literally a refuge or fortress, depending on your point of view) to the same facilities outside their walls. The goal keeps members from going anywhere else except home for all their needs. This prevents them from exposure to the greater culture, being in the world, but not co-opted by its immoral behaviors.
While these folks are striving to follow Jesus and live his Gospel, they have taken it too literally and have pushed the proverbial pendulum too far to one extreme. Jesus himself was deeply immersed in the culture of his time and often criticized for it. But he met and pastored people where they were.
The idea of removing myself from the world to not be co-opted by it is tempting at times, especially with the daily barrage of craziness we are experiencing. Walking away from all of it is seductive. I keep hearing Dean Martin’s song “Make the World Go Away” in my head when I think this. But if the world went away from my life, it would not be true to what Jesus is asking God for us to do.
Other Christians are just too daunted by the prospect of having to always be on guard against the ways of the world. They toss their hands in despair and throw in the towel. Following Jesus may feel too hard, boring, or weird, especially when others in their social circle or family or workplace don’t think it’s important or valued.
The majority of us compromise our resistance to the ways of the world little by little. The ways of the world whittle away at us, wearing us down. Often, we don’t even realize it’s happening. We straddle the fence over here. We give slightly in another area over there. Next thing you know you’re not only in, but you’re of the world.
This is not the worst thing, as long as you become aware of it happening. One of the best things about following Jesus is that when that evil one does seduce us to be of the world and compromised by it, we can acknowledge it, repent, and be forgiven.
There is a third way - to live by Jesus’ words in the world. I know, easier said than done. Remember, Jesus asked God to protect us, so we do so with God’s help.
We who follow Jesus are different from the rest of the world. Our values and standards (given to us by Jesus) are different. The new commandment is succinct and easy enough, almost facile. Have you tried to love everyone you encounter in your life for even one day? Whooie, it’s tough work. The Beatitudes are elegant, beautiful and hopeful. But when’s the last time you were persecuted, bullied or gossiped about and felt that the kingdom of God was yours?
As followers of Jesus, there is joy in struggling against the tide of the world’s ways; of battling the storm of evil when you know in every fiber of your being that Jesus’ words are the way the life and the truth. When we face the insidious hostility of evil in the world (knowing we are in alignment with the Gospel), we find true joy. This true joy fulfills Jesus’ prayer, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
Jesus doesn’t want to take us out of the world; he wants us to participate in the victory of his ways in the world. It is in the rough and tumble of life (not the cloister, barricaded in our homes, or in the enclosed culture of a mega-church ) that we must live our Christian faith.
My friends, Christianity is not an easy faith to follow. Despite attempts by some to paint it as a religion for the weak-minded, or worse, as the opioid of the people, it is far from that. It is not a magic bullet or an elixir we drink once and then poof, all is well. The Christian faith is hard, challenging work. But following Jesus saves gives us the strength to do so as he protects us from the corruption of the world. More than anything, following Jesus equips us better for life. It doesn’t magically give us an end to our problems, it gives us the strength and tools to solve them. We face and conquer our troubles. We cannot abandon the world, we encounter it in all its fullness. Our witness to the Gospel diminishes the evil one.
Jesus prayed to God that he had “revealed/made know God’s name” to the disciples. Our work is to name the character and identity of God in the world. The Son made God known to us, and he revealed that God is love. We are to go and do the same.
Being in the world means that the world will, through us, share the knowledge of the God who is love. There is no more important, critical task for us to engage in.
Let’s go forth into the world, confident that Jesus safeguards us as we proclaim his good news and bring about his reign.
Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18
The Rev. Peter Faass
Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation. Generally, salvation is saving of the soul from sin and its consequences. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter, speaking of Jesus, states that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
This and similar statements in scripture, have led many Christians to believe that only those who believe in Jesus will be saved, and those who do not believe in him are condemned to some version of eternal damnation. Within Christianity, there are many different doctrines about salvation and most are rooted in human precepts. Ask a Roman Catholic and you get one version of salvation. Ask a Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or an Evangelical, and you get something quite different. Ask an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian or a Lutheran, and you will get three more understandings of that it means to be saved.
Because of narrow – dare I say, myopic – interpretations of scripture, combined with our selfish human needs to exert control and dominance, salvation theories abound. We have seen centuries of distrust, hatred, prejudice, exclusion and even violence committed by various Christians against one another because of that.
When a nation adopts one particular expression of Christianity as its official “state religion,” look out. Historically, believers who do not belong to that state religion will be marginalized, suffer persecution, and even die. Salvation only comes to those who are adherents of the right, or “true” faith. Everyone else gets persecuted and a grisly ticket to the grave. We only need to look at the history of our own Anglican faith to see this. A lot of Catholic and Protestant blood were spilled in religious struggle during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
Maltreatment of people who supposedly believe wrongly and are therefore beyond salvation pertains to other religions as well. In many nations where Islam is the official religion, Christians and Jews are marginalized, persecuted and even threatened with death. In the Middle East, in both Israel and the surrounding Arab nations of Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, Christianity as an indigenous religion is in danger of extinction because it has been so marginalized and persecuted by the greater cultures. It is estimated that in another generation, the only Christians living in Israel/Palestine will be those maintaining holy sites.
I believe most of us struggle with this kind of exclusivist idea of salvation, whether it’s Christian or otherwise. We in Northeast Ohio live in a multi-religious, multi-cultural melting pot. We encounter people from across the Christian religious spectrum and of other faiths every day. In the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, we live amidst one of the largest concentrations of Jewish people in the country. We have growing populations of Buddhists, Hindus and people from other faiths. And then there are the Nones, those people who profess no identifiable religious affiliation. Who among us doesn’t have Jewish, Catholic, Mormon or atheist colleagues, neighbors, friends or family members? A few of us may not. Who doesn’t like, admire, or love these folks who form a part of the fabric of our lives?
Which of us believes that these family, friends and neighbors from other denominations or faiths or no faith, and who don’t believe our particular doctrines about Jesus, are not saved and are going to burn in hell?
Thank goodness! Sadly though, many do.
One of the roots of these exclusivist Christian ways to salvation is found in the mistranslation of a passage in today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
In the late fourth century when St. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek into Latin (a tome known as the Vulgate Bible), he changed the word flock (as in “one flock”) to fold. His Bible read there will be one fold and one shepherd. This mistranslation became the scriptural warrant the Roman Catholic Church embraces. The Roman Catholic Church believes that since there is only one fold, there is only one Church (the Catholic Church), and there is no salvation beyond it.
Christians of all flavors have been using this one fold, one shepherd plumb line for centuries to determine their guideline for salvation. Of course, their particular expression of the faith is the one and only true fold. And if you’re not in that fold, you’re not saved. The problems with this are that:
When Jesus tell us, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd,” it undermines all those exclusivist soteriologies. That statement is unambiguous in its radical inclusivity. It resoundingly says to those who adhere to exclusive soteriologies, No!
Uniformity isn’t promised in this passage – unity is. The distinction goes beyond words, depending on a wide and important truth. It is not unity of fold which is regarded as being necessary for salvation, but unity of flock. There will be many folds in many nations and ages throughout the world.
For all Christians, there will be one true Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and all these differing folds shall, through living in unity with Him, make one vast flock. That is the route to salvation.
Let me push the envelope here: I think this goes beyond just Christianity and the Church. The vast flock will embrace all people who hear Jesus’ voice in all the various iterations that God has made that voice known in human life and cultures. The voice of the Christian Church won’t exclusively lead to salvation, much of which is rooted in human doctrines and precepts. Rather, it is rooted in hearing Jesus’ voice through the Gospel and beyond.
This means those who will be saved are people who hear and heed his words.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:6-9)
Those who will find salvation are those who hear and heed his voice when he says, ‘Truly I tell you, whenever you [took care and loved] one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, who were (hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, sick, lonely) you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Those who will find true salvation hear and heed his voice when Jesus tells us, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) By hearing and heeding these words, the world can be one flock and find God’s peace.
There was a Christian missionary in Canada who was working amongst the indigenous Indian peoples in Saskatchewan. I have updated the nouns to be inclusive.
When the missionary was telling the native peoples about the love of God, an elderly chief said to him, “When you spoke of the Great Spirit just now, did I hear you call God “Our Mother - Father?” Yes, said the missionary. “This is very new and sweet to me,” said the chief. “We never thought of the Great Spirit as mother-father. We do know the Spirit as thunder, lightning, rain and various creatures of the forest, but never as mother-father, as a parent. This new understanding is very comforting to us, because if God is our mother-father and if God is your mother-father, then our people are all sisters and brothers.”
My sisters and brothers, this is salvation.
The Rev. Peter Faass
Many of you know I take issue with the way lectionary compilers edit the scripture. The passage from Acts begins by saying, “Peter addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”
It begs the question, “made who walk?”
As we are in Easter season, my first inclination was to think that Peter and his companions were accused of making Jesus walk, of somehow resuscitated Jesus. This of course would’ve implied that Jesus was not dead. There was no shortage of people in those post-Easter days – like in our own day - working to undermine the authenticity of the Resurrection, so this fits with that pattern. But the one referred to as walking was not Jesus.
The lectionary compilers significantly omitted part of the story. In the preceding verses, Peter and his companion John entered the Jerusalem Temple and encountered “a man lame from birth.”
“People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3: 2-8)
Those who witnessed this healing were astonished. Peter explains that he and John haven’t done this healing. God of the Hebrew people, through Jesus, has empowered the disciples to perform acts of healing. Peter delivers a campaign speech to convince people not only of Jesus’ resurrection, but that he is the one, true Messiah of God.
This riles the religious authorities. “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So, they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.” (Acts 4:1-4)
The next day, the disciples are put on trial. Peter again speaks eloquently in witness to Jesus’ Messiahship. The previously lame man, now healed, shows up as a witness and it pulls the rug from underneath the religious authorities’ claim that the faith Peter and John proclaim in Jesus is a sham.
“[The authorities] ordered [Peter and John] to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened.”
This story is a first century version of George Orwell’s 1984. In 2018, we see this with governmental and political manipulation of the news media to control and silence news that threatens those in power.
In 1984, the authorities (known as the Inner Party) persecute individualism, independent thinking and any message dissenting from the official party line, which are regarded as "thought crimes." Currently, we have experienced this type of control over dissent by certain political leaders and operatives who label independent thought and thinking as being fake news, which to them is a thought crime.
This is what the authorities who arrest Peter and John are attempting to do; label the message of salvation being preached as a thought crime and fake news. It is a blatant attempt to control a message that threatens them and to prevent others from hearing it. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection, his being the Messiah, and the power he has given to his disciples are labeled fake news by the authorities. The Good News is powerful, and threatens those in power and their ability to control people.
How often do professed Christians, either actively or passively proclaim that the Good News is fake news? How about those alleged Christians who turn a blind eye when political or religious leaders they support commit adultery, lie, cheat, steal, abuse, and in other ways mock the message of Jesus? How about those alleged Christians who continue to enthusiastically support these leaders who are unrepentant and unremorseful about their behaviors? What these folks are actually saying is that the Good News is fake news, because the Good News proclaims that the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes and the New Commandment matter and are essential to a good and holy life. They are critical to being an authentic disciple of Jesus.
How about Christians who believe that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, people of color, and immigrants from Africa, Asia and Central and South America (basically anyone not white and Christian) are inferior human beings from worthless countries and cultures? They are declaring is that the Good News is fake news. In the reign of God Jesus proclaims, we are called to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
What about those who profess to follow Jesus believe that Christmas and Easter are just sweet children’s holidays and are best celebrated with trees, carols, Santa Claus, bunnies, eggs and candy? When we believe this, we are declaring that the Good News is fake news. The Good News proclaims that the Incarnation of God in Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus from the grave profoundly express a God who loves us more than we can imagine. Those two mighty acts of love are able to redeem all the sin-sick brokenness of the world, and to bring new life to all creation.
How often do our words and deeds proclaim the Good News as fake news?
When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he affirms his authenticity by letting them touch his wounds and by eating real food. But his presence is validated by his words, “Peace be with you.” His message of peace calms their fears, eases their doubts, and gives them the strength and courage to proclaim without ambiguity the Good News is real and proclaims the truth.
Jesus tells them to go and be witnesses to these things that they have seen and heard to the world. My sisters and brothers, that is our task.
Like Peter and John, we are confronted daily by those who would try to sell the world fake news and engage in thought control because they fear and are threatened by God’s truth through Jesus. Like Jesus, Peter and John we are called to speak truth to the manipulative and malicious powers and principalities of the world that want to engage in undermining and destroying the truth of the Good News.
We do so confident that with God’s love, “we cannot” as Peter and John tell their accusers, “keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” in the life-giving Resurrection of Jesus our Savior. We must persist in witnessing this truth. We do so because we know that truth will set us free.
The Rev. Peter Faass
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
It’s an odd year my friends. It’s an odd year. We preachers have been confronted with two book-ended dilemmas for Lent and Easter in 2018:
As I noted in my Ash Wednesday sermon, we preachers have, with great angst, wrestled over whether to address the calendar oddities of these secular celebrations falling on Christian Holy Days, or to just ignore them all together. As I confronted my fears head-on on Ash Wednesday and spoke of Valentine’s Day, I feel compelled to do so again on Easter and speak about April Fool’s Day.
According to Wikipedia,” April Fools' Day, (sometimes called All Fools' Day) is an annual celebration in some European and Western countries commemorated on April 1 by playing practical jokes and spreading hoaxes. The jokes and their victims are called April fools. People playing April Fool jokes often expose their prank by shouting "April Fool" at the unfortunate victim(s). Some newspapers, magazines and other published media report fake stories, which are usually explained the next day or below the news section in smaller letters. Although popular since the 19th century, the day is not a public holiday in any country.”
I’m not really big on playing pranks, but I do like having fun with words and double entendres, and which limericks do well. In the spirit of April Fool’s Day, here’s an Easter limerick written by Christopher Brunelle:
“Here’s the question that Eastertide begs
Is it all about candy and eggs?
No, the point to be praised
Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs." 
As [the women]’ entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.'
"No, the point to be praised
Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs.”
Days prior to the discovery of the empty tomb on that first Good Friday, as Jesus’ beaten and bloodied body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb, it appeared to all who were involved (both Jesus’s followers and his adversaries) that death had won the victory. For his followers all hope was gone. This man whom they called Messiah, who had given them such hope as he proclaimed radical love for all people and a way of life so different, so full of hope from what the world had ever known, was dead. Despair, gloom and abject fear hung like a shroud over the remnant of Jesus’s disciples, who barricaded themselves behind locked doors in the upper room or had fled for their lives into the countryside.
Death, on the other hand, was doing a dance of joy as it once again celebrated that it had the last laugh in human life. As it danced, Death reveled in what it believed was the ultimate truth: that it and its minions of despair, cynicism, hopelessness, and fear were always the eventual victors in all things.
On that first Easter morn, this incomprehensible event of the empty tomb and the resurrection announced by the angel: “He has been raised. He is not here.”
In this very moment of the angel’s announcement at the empty tomb, Easter and April Fool’s Day meet. Based on this meeting I would postulate that the resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the greatest April Fool’s joke in the history of the world, a joke played by God on death itself. “Hey Death, “Easter proclaims, “You thought you won the battle? April Fool’s! Gotcha, the joke’s on you. He has been raised, he is not here! So much for your dancing that victory jig.”
As the second verse of that great Easter hymn, “The strife is o’er” proclaims, “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed.”
In the face of Death’s apparent victory of hopelessness, despair, and fear, God brings new life. April Fool’s, Death! Love and life win! Oh, what a grand prank that is!
Are you familiar with the BBC show Call the Midwife? This period drama series focuses on a group of nurse midwives working in London’s East End of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This midwifery is a ministry of an order of Anglican nuns, (yes, Anglican nuns!) from the order of St. John the Divine, which was founded in 1849 as a nursing order. The program’s were comprised of life-professed nuns and lay women. Their home is St. Nonnatus House in the Poplar district of East London. By the way, Nonnatus is a saint from Catalonia in Spain. His name refers to his birth by Caesarean section, his mother having died while giving birth to him.
I love Call the Midwife for a number of reasons, especially the outstanding acting, character development and plot lines. This is not your run-of-the mill treacly British costume melodrama (although I like those too). The program depicts the day-to-day lives of the midwives and their neighbors in Poplar. The plot lines poignantly and honestly portray real-life situations: still-birth, thalidomide babies, pregnancy termination, infertility, Down’s syndrome, abusive relationships, abandoned mothers and babies, poverty, single motherhood, rape, a father left to care for children after his wife dies in childbirth, violence, serious illness, racism, bigotry, senility, loss of all kinds, and death.
Based on these topics Call the Midwife sounds like a real downer, right? Talk about depressing! “Gee, great way to the end the weekend on Sunday nights on PBS, Peter! What other scintillating recommendations do you have for us this lovely Easter morning?”
Death should be dancing a jig of joy in Call the Midwife as people’s lives are harshly impacted by these painful and heart-rending life-events. Only cynicism, despair and hopelessness can be the end-product of all this human misery, pain, loss and death. But the truth is, Call the Midwife is not a downer and not in the least bit depressing. In fact, Call the Midwife is filled with hope, optimism, joy, and new life. And it so filled because of one reason: Love.
The program’s midwives and other main characters are filled with Christ-like love. Whether all of them would describe it that way or not is not important. What is important is that they are filled with Jesus’ love. Despite the challenges and the burdens they encounter, they always bring gentle, compassionate, non-judgmental and hopeful love to every person they encounter, regardless of the circumstances. More often than not, they bring this radical love when they themselves are heavily burdened. Their faith in the value and dignity of every human being is palpable. They see Christ in all, loving all their neighbors as themselves.They live and breathe resurrection lives.
Like that first Easter morning, it’s as if the plot line of life gets to the point where you believe life is hopelessly irredeemable and where Death is ready to declare the victory. Your fear is so great that you want to go and barricade yourself in a room or flee for the hills. The Nonnatus sisters and midwives then come along and roll away the stone from the grave, shouting to Death, “April Fool’s, love and life win!”
This is exactly what Jesus’ Resurrection does for us.
After the Resurrection, the fear that initially gripped Jesus’ early followers was transformed into absolute and resolute faith that the new commandment that Jesus had given them to love one another as I have loved you, would yield resurrection new life. St. Paul states in his letter to the Romans that they were “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
We need to hold onto this truth in this current climate of apparent hopelessness and despair. There is resurrection life beyond our current dire circumstances regardless of what they may be. Easter guarantees that. No force was an obstacle to the disciples proclaiming this good news of Jesus’ love to give new life. And neither is there for us.
Call the Midwife models how the early disciples came to lead their lives with wanton love and how they gained new life in the midst of the worst that death could ever throw at them. Call the Midwife reminds us that when we live resurrection lives of love, resurrection happens.
My sisters and brothers, live resurrection lives of love. That’s our gift from Jesus this Easter and every day. In that certainty, when death seems to be ready to do a little two-step on us, we can shout “April Fool’s, Death. Life and love win!“
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
 Brunelle, Christopher. The Church Year in Limericks, (MorningStar) Printed in the Christian Century, February 28, 2018, p. 3.
The Rev. Peter Faass
This past Tuesday, The New York Times had this article: “Afraid of Snakes? Wasps and Dogs Are Deadlier.” Author Nicholas Bakalar stated, “Beware the snake, the spider and the scorpion. But know this: You are much more likely to be killed by a bee or a dog.”
“Of the 1,610 people killed in encounters with animals between 2008 and 2015, 478 were killed by hornets, wasps and bees, and 272 by dogs, according to a study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. Snakes, spiders and scorpions were responsible for 99 deaths over the eight years.”
I didn’t buy it for a moment! Really? In my mind, snakes are lurking behind every pew, killers striking wantonly. Where were these New York Times statisticians in 1250 BCE when, according to the book of Numbers, snake bites were clearly the leading cause of death? As we heard this morning, “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
Good heavens! People were dying left and right from snake bites and all because they complained about how bad dinner was. Clearly God the chef wouldn’t be trifled with. “Oh, you didn’t like the manna, did you? Well, see if these snake bites are more to your liking.” Certainly, this is an object lesson: When it comes to God and culinary skills, bite your tongue. Better ill fed than dead.
Interestingly, the image of a snake becomes the antidote to the scourge of snake bites in Sinai:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
This is a really interesting development. By this point, Moses and the Israelites already received the Ten Commandments. The second Commandment is quite clear: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Ex. 20:4-5a)
Wow! The ink is barely dry on the tablets and God is instructing Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake, place it on a pole and encourage people gaze upon it whenever they were bitten by a snake to be healed and live. If that’s not an idolatrous symbol and worship of it, than I don’t know what is!
This sacred pole and bronze serpent survived 500 years after the Exodus finished and the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. In the book of 2 Kings, people were still worshiping that bronze snake when King Hezekiah ascended to the throne. Presumably, the plague of poisonous snakes was over by then, so what was going on here?
Hezekiah was a religious reformer who came to the throne after a long period of apostasy from God’s ways by the Israelites. The snake had become a symbol of Baal, one of the more insidious pagan gods whom God loathed. The lapse of nearly 500 years had invested the bronze serpent with a pagan identity. Hezekiah was incensed by the people’s idolatrous worship of that bronze snake. He contemptuously called it, "Nehushtan," a brazen thing, a mere piece of brass. The text tells us, “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” (2 Kings 18:4b)
Jewish scholars have been puzzled by the apparent breaking of the Second Commandment and worshipping the bronze serpent. One explanation the rabbis offer is that “It was not the serpent that gave life [to those bitten by snakes.] So long as Moses lifted up the serpent, they believed in [God] who had commanded Moses to act thus. It was God who healed them.” So, the healing power lay not in the bronze serpent; it was only a symbol to turn the people’s hearts toward God, who then healed them.
While the bronze serpent was first considered a graven image, it was actually a symbol reminding the kvetching people of God, and of God’s exclusive power to heal and save. As time went on it morphed into a graven image, and one that drew people to a pagan deity instead of the God of Israel. Something which God had given for the good changed into something bad.
How often do take something God has given us for our healing and wholeness -- and turn it intoan idolatrous thing that makes us unwell and unwhole?
I would argue that this happened with Jesus. He was given to us by God as someone of extraordinary goodness; to heal and give us life when we are bitten by the deadly venoms of the world. Like the bronze serpent, Jesus had over time been changed by all too many alleged adherents of him into something that is bad, life-denying and evil - something that worshiped as an evil deity.
As the Gospel of John says, God gave us Himself in the incarnation “in order that the world might be saved through him.” Frequently he has been turned into a symbol of hatred, fear, bigotry and judgment. Someone who does not save the world, but rather destroys it and the children of God.
This Jesus is a fraud, created to mask human fear, hatred, power, lust and greed. John Dominic Crossan describes him as the “slaughtered Lamb” of God who gave his life for the salvation of the world, and who has been manipulated and twisted into the “slaughtering lamb” who soaks the world in hatred, fear, blood, violence.
The authentic, good Jesus who draws us to God through his life of love, compassion, honoring the image of God in all people and nonviolent resistance to evil, has been replaced through human machinations by an idolatrous, evil entity who blesses and leads the violent slaughter of perceived evildoers, inferior human beings, apostates, heretics and degenerates.
This Jesus is a fraud.
This fraudulent Jesus turns us away from the true God and he needs to be destroyed, just as the bronze serpent was destroyed by King Hezekiah.
We need to reclaim the authentic Jesus; the one who draws us to God and heals. We begin doing this by holding fast the words of John’s Gospel: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We need to be vigilant because evil is always conjuring up ways to draw us toward darkness and away from God. When evil tries to seduce us with its venom, we need to gaze on Jesus, the “light [who] has come into the world.”
Let his light shine in our lives so we may be healed and live. Love the light. The light redeems. The light saves. Hold fast to this truth: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, and never will, overcome it.” Gaze on that and live.
Luke 2: 1-20
Rev. Peter Faass
It’s amazing how our familiarity (or overexposure) with something can make us less aware of it. This overfamiliarity can cause it to lose meaning. Christmas falls into that category.
We get overexposed to the secular part of Christmas with its emphasis on commercialism and partying. To limit that relentless bombardment of the season, we put up filters to keep ourselves from being physically, mentally and spiritually overwhelmed. When the real meaning of Christmas arrives at our door on Christmas Eve, we don’t recognize it. We might look at it and reply, “Sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”
There’s a lovely framed watercolor in our parish office that captures how this happens. I didn’t pay attention to this print, which I’ve passed thousands of times, until we repainted the office. The title of the print is “The Holy Family Enters Cleveland.” The Plain Dealer wrote an article about the print, painted by the Rev. Ralph Fotia, a local Methodist minister, in 1986.
The print’s delicate strokes evoke Asian art to me. The Cleveland skyline with the Terminal Tower and the Standard Oil buildings are in the distance. The onion domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral are to the right. A snow-covered field lies before them, with a small tree standing to the left. Joseph trudges through the snow in the foreground, leading a donkey that is carrying Mary as she holds her baby Jesus. The Holy Family appears to have an abstract halo over their heads.
Inside, the card reads:
Overbooked inns in Bethlehem
A waiting family out in the cold
Still wandering through our cities
Looking for the room.
Plain Dealer writer Darrell Holland stated that (the depiction and the message) “suggests the needs of the Holy Family at Jesus’ birth are reflected in the lives of many Greater Clevelanders.”
In the scripture, the Holy Family experienced hardship twice in the Nativity story:
Rev. Fotia was an urban minister, pastoring to many Clevelanders with circumstances similar to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. His painting is a theologically powerful tableau, reminding us that many others, like the Holy Family, need relief from the world’s oppressive ways.
Fotia noted, “People like the Holy Family continue to seek shelter and food and to have trouble finding them. There are still overbooked inns like in Bethlehem. Jobs are not available and people suffer.”
This powerful print breaks into the overfamiliarity with Christmas. It reminds us of the original Christmas story’s scandal. This season’s relentless bombardment should not prevent us from seeing the Nativity’s true meaning and the message it yearns to deliver.
God came into human history as a helpless, newborn baby. He was laid in a feeding trough in a cave with livestock. He was born to a young unwed couple. God was born on the road. A Super 8 Motel would be luxurious in comparison. Those who initially visited him were shepherds, those on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Everything about Jesus’ birth is antithetical to what we would expect for a kingly birth, never mind a deity’s. However, everything about this birth is a profound statement about God and, as the angels proclaimed that holy night, “those whom God favors.”
By entering history in this manner, we understand this is a new kind of King. This isn’t a Caesar living decadently in an imperial capital, ruling by intimidation brute force and fear. God help us if Caesar had gotten his hands on a cellphone with a Twitter account! Instead, Jesus’ birth is about a king, partial to the most disadvantaged, who wanted humanity’s redemption and wellness. As the angel announced to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
In this king, there is hope for the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the persecuted, the immigrant, the Muslim, the African –American, the ill, LGBTQ people, sexually-abused women, hungry children, those without health insurance and everyone who would be considered the least among us. This includes everyone wandering in the cold and snow, in a hostile world seeking a place of compassion and hospitality, in Cleveland, throughout the nation and the world. These are all members of the Holy Family. God specifically chose derided people like these to initially proclaim the good news. This is why they respond with gratitude and great joy!
Jesus’ birth shows that God has not forgotten anyone. With Jesus’ birth, the good news proclaimed that God didn’t abandon us to the brokenness and sin-sick world. In brokenness of our own dark times, the hope of that truth is the light that shines brightly from the stable of Bethlehem. The baby Jesus light calls us to be bearers of that light, to bring it to those whom Rev. Fotia stated are “Still [are]wandering through our cities, looking for the room.”
The Rev. Pat Hanen wrote this advent meditation:
“The power of God to know the truth and do right is eternal and incontrovertible. But if we follow Jesus, we have to bear the pain of using that power in this world. We have to stand up, suffering the pain of gravity. We have to do right, acknowledging our own sin, repenting from it, and changing. We have to exercise compassion, risking ourselves, recognizing that the destiny of a candle is to be consumed in giving light.”
In the newborn Jesus, God has not forgotten us. Let us not forget those he came to serve.
Let us welcome those Holy Families who wander the cold, desolate places seeking warmth, welcome, compassion and dignity. By so doing we will be glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.
Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to all God’s people.
John 17: 1-11
Rev. Peter Faass
The opening words of the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel are the beginning of what is referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer: “Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.”
The setting of the High Priestly Prayer is the upper room on the night before Jesus dies. He and the disciples have just finished foot washing and sharing their last supper. Jesus prays out loud so his disciples may hear him.
In this prayer, this man is about to sacrifice his life to complete the work he has been given – to inaugurate God’s reign. This prayer focuses on life, hope, and ultimate love.
On this Memorial Day weekend, this reading evokes images of the women and men who have served in the armed forces and died for this nation for the past 241 years. Like Jesus, they sacrificed their lives and completed a task for a greater cause - ensuring our nation’s freedoms and defending the sacred gifts of life and liberty. Their lives were and are a living prayer of love for this nation.
As we celebrate the beginning of summer this Memorial Weekend with barbeques, picnics, parades and relaxing, may we pause and give thanks to God for these sacrificial prayers of love given to us by these fallen soldiers and sailors. We do the same when we thank in our worship for the gift of love Jesus gave us in his sacrifice on the cross.
In his farewell prayer, Jesus spoke to God on behalf of the faith community. “I am asking on their behalf,” he prays to God. He asks, “Holy Father, protect them [the community of faith] in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
With these words, Jesus entrusts the future of the faith community to God. We often forget this powerful theological statement. The future of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. This reminds me of the bumper sticker that states, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.”
In this era of institutional church decline, more churches struggle to pay bills, achieve balanced budgets, are challenged with membership growth and with using their building as an asset, etc., this message comes as a wake-up call and a huge relief. The future of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. While that doesn’t release us from proclaiming the Gospel and building God’s reign, it means we are not in control of what God desires the church to be into the future, or how it will get there. Regardless of church’s future, Jesus tells us God will protect us as we do God’s work in the world. That’s a cathartic message. It lightens the burden considerably when wardens, vestry members, other lay leaders and clergy accept that the church’s future is up to God. We just have to be faithful and trust in God’s protection.
At the heart of the High Priestly Prayer, we learn that the Father gave us Jesus, “to give [us] eternal life . . . And this is eternal life, that they [the faith community] may know you, the only true God.”
Christian theology often focuses on the idea of eternal life being the afterlife, i.e., heaven. The idea of eternal life as a future, other-worldly experience contradicts what Jesus preached, that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17: 21). In this prayer, eternal life comes from knowing God.
As Jesus prays, God is in him, and he is in God. We know Jesus as love. We gain eternal life by knowing God, who is love, and then we live with love.
Jesus’ life, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension reveal the extent and nature of the love that informs our knowledge of God. They reveal the character and identity of God revealed in Jesus, whose life so overflowed with love that he freely gave himself for the salvation of the entire cosmos. To know this God of love is to have eternal life.
If we are to become one with the Father and the Son, we must embody a giving sacrificial love in our lives by:
Every little thing we do, if it is done in love, reveals God within us – the members of the faith community - to others. It ALL matters.
A candidate for our music director’s position emailed me after he auditioned for us this past week. He wrote that he and his girlfriend “…agreed that [Christ Church] was one of the friendliest parishes they ever visited.” His comments remind me that every person and encounter matters, especially when we embody the love of Jesus as we meet them.
To love is lived prayer. The women and men in the armed forces we remember this weekend lived and died in love defending the values of our nation. Their lives were lived prayer. They knew eternal life in the here and now because of that, and I know they are safe in God’s protection.
Jesus, in his High Priestly Prayer, says our lives are in God’s protection, that God is in charge, and that with God ultimately “all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” This knowledge about God frees us to incarnate the love of God in all that we are and do. In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus calls us to a life of living prayer by emulating the love of God within him. When we emulate this love we become one with them, and we come to know God. Eternal life will then be ours forever.
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-15
Rev. Peter Faass
The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE was an apocalyptic event for Israelites. Everything they valued, socially, religiously and culturally, had been assaulted and threatened. Many believed that the oppressive Babylonian empire would force them to commingle with foreign nations and exile, diminishing the Hebrews’ core identity to extinction.
The exiles despaired, lamenting that their bones were dried up and their hopes had perished. They felt cut off from the Promised Land, the holy city Jerusalem, and from God.
Amidst this dejected situation, God sends the prophet Ezekiel, who experiences a series of oracles including the vision of the valley of dry bones. Prior to seeing these oracles, God told Ezekiel of his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive and give them hope by relaying visions of Israel’s future.
In the opening verses, Ezekiel proclaims, “I was among the exiles by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1).
In this particular vision, Ezekiel sees an arid valley full of dry bones. The valley appears to be a former battle site, with unburied bodies of dead soldiers left to rot and be eaten by carrion birds and animals.
God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” God tells him to prophesy the bones. As he does, the bones slowly come together until they are covered with skin. God then breathes life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God says these bones are the people of the House of Israel. God tells them, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe-inducing yet impossible vision to believe. For the Hebrews in exile, the good news was difficult to hear and more impossible to visualize.
By relaying his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances through God’s eyes rather than through their limited vision. With human eyes, can dry, desiccated bones live? Of course not!
If we see through God’s eyes, bone suddenly comes to bone. One commentary states, “Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tight. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up – a great army testifying to the power of God . . . [Through human eyes] can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Absurd! But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit and return home.”
If God can restore the desiccated bones of a hopeless people back to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power to do the same for us. If we can see through God’s eyes, envisioning His hope for this world and us, then there is no limit for our being revived from the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting His spirit back into them also occurs in the story of Lazarus. This story, in John’s Gospel, was written by a community of early Christians recently exiled – or if you will, excommunicated - from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered themselves a Jewish sect.
By the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled by Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome as fellow brothers and sisters of the faith, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This caused considerable despair and hopelessness. In the context of this situation, the author of John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not in the fourth decade of the first century, although he could have done so.
It does matter that for the despairing and entombed Johanine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offers them hope and raises them from despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus made to Martha when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether in literal or metaphorical death, God’s love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus, who saw everything with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s optimistic vision for the defeated and “as-good-as-dead” people. Looking through the eyes of God, Israel would soon be freed from exile and restored to Judea, and the Temple and Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God’s life-giving breath was breathed in them. God’s vision of salvation for the people materialized.
In the community of John, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ resurrection. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus and in that love he conveyed his love for the despondent Johanine community.
In both instances, God gave despondent communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is to see with the eyes of God.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes, which are the eyes of love. The hymn, My Song is Love Unknown, states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God always gives us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, we may find hope to live through that love-filled sight. When we see through Jesus’ eyes, we are released from the graves that entomb us, and he becomes for us resurrection and life.
In those times when we feel as if our bones are dried up and our spirits gone, when we feel like the tomb has been closed over us and the stench of death grows ever stronger, I can think of no greater life–giving message than this one. This is true for us individually and corporately as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
If we do, we have hope and it will propel us to testify to God’s power, and resurrected life will be ours.